"The Heroine-ism of Audrey Flack"
By Robert C. Morgan
Review January 15, 1999
Audrey Flack was the first American Photo-Realist painter to get into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. This is before the hey-day of Photo-Realism came thundering into vogue in 1970. Flack was, as usual, ahead of the game. This is not to suggest that there was a full critical acceptance of her work or of Photo-Realism in general. There were many who questioned the validity of Photo Realism, who saw it as a weakened form of Pop Art. It was also during the time when reductivist abstraction had taken over the reign of the New York art world - Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Process Art, Anti-form, and Body Art. From an avant-garde point of view, these developments were somehow viewed more seriously than Photo-Realism. Photo-Realism, among other things, was concerned with the surface - how the surface became an illusion, and how the illusion became a surface. It was a reciprocal concept about surface and subject matter based on the materiality of paint. One might say, in retrospect, that the best Photo-Realist painting of that era was more about the materiality of paint as the substance of the surface than the effect of opticality or tromp l'oeil. Audrey Flack was concerned with the materiality of the surface, the excess of the surface. Her work was about painting, not in the pure formalist sense, but painting as a material manifestation of one's sensory capability to absorb the glittering abundance of visual stimuli that attracted her. Flack's sense of an integral verisimilitude was exemplary in every way. She had an enormous prowess for the study and execution of detail. Take any painting, a portrait, a still-life, or a combination thereof. One will discover the impossibility of suspending the whole in relation to the parts, because in a painting by Flack the parts are the whole. She never confused verisimilitude with illusion, because she understood the truth of seeing. It was a matter of allowing oneself to indulge, to penetrate the surface, to swim through the surface, with only occasional intervals of air. She wanted the miraculous truth of representation not apart from painterliness but within the deep structure of painting.
Painting, for Flack, always impressed me as a religious act. She has always sought that truth, no matter what the subject matter. In some cases, the problems in Flack's sculpture are inextricably related to the nature of public expressivity - a term that is an oxymoron. How can expressivity be public? On the other hand, how can expressivity be projected successful into the public sphere? Given that many of these works in the Meisel exhibition are studies or maquettes for larger public works, one has to consider the fact that they are destined to appear in public places - that is, non-art places where the greater majority of potential spectators will know nothing about deconstruction, let alone Joseph Beuys or Cindy Sherman. To put it bluntly, public spaces are public spaces. This suggests a certain anonymity. A corporate complex of buildings, a shopping mall, a municipal structure, a superhighway - these may be efficient, but they are not particularly warm places; that is, they are not warm in the social sense. Why? Because one cannot presume that a public space is also a social one. (Americans are too agitated, too hyper- mediated by electronics to exist as a real social group - one of the primary loop-holes in our democratic structure that even Thomas Jefferson failed to predict.)
I mention this to suggest that Flack's sculpture tends to idealize the feminine - and rightly so. But what does this have to do with public spaces? Certainly there are historical precedents for this. For example, we can speculate on the power of the interior Parthenon where the goddess Athena held reign in 448 BC. We are familiar with the caryatids of the so-called Porch of the Maidens at the Erechtheum, built in the Acropolis some forty years later. Can we presume that the ancient Greek snake goddess from 1400 BC was also designed as a public monument? Each of these monumental goddesses have been prototypes or influences, in one way of another, for the figurative sculpture of Audrey Flack. Her dialectical relationship to history is extremely conscious - a factor that has persisted in her work both as a painter and a sculptor. One could argue on this account that the most lasting advances in the history of art have always been those subtle, yet enduring alterations of earlier prototypes. Flack seems to believe that this is the case; she does not subscribe, as far as I know, to the end of history in the sense that postmodernists once advocated. Her sense of history is always of the present and the present can never be severed from the past. On a practical level, this is the way the artist advocates the academic dilemma of resorting to the past without a grip on the visual or psychological realities of the present. To repeat: Audrey Flack has always maintained this historical relationship in her work, but never to the exclusion of what she understands as the absence that exists in the art of today. What she sees as absence is, in fact, an iconic relationship to the history and significance of women's ideals. In his book, Spurs: The Styles of Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida discusses the difference between the history of women and the history of the image of women. They are two histories that have moments of intersection. These moments of intersection occur upon certain occasions when there are advances in consciousness. Audrey Flack is cognizant of this intersection in the present moment. Her monumental sculpture is about fulfilling as well as fulfilling that absence. She understands that there are regressive forces, unenlightened forces in society that are ignorant of the renewing and regenerative powers of art. To speak of Flack's sculpture of the past decade in theoretical terms is absurd on the one hand, yet quite relevant on the other. She has confronted regressive political agendas in recent months, especially with her luminous sculpture of QUEEN CATHERINE OF BRAGANZA, 1993-94, but this has not thwarted her desire to raise consciousness through her work on the important place of feminine iconography in the urban environment.
With all the ascending spires of office buildings in cites throughout the world - whether modern or postmodern - there is a need for this kind of statuary. Purely decorative? Perhaps; but we must remember that this kind of exciarnative is usually an execration emanating from the lips of staunch Puritans. The United States is probably the only country in the Western world where the decorative arts are so denigrated. It is through the decorative that we come to terms with the ideas of a society, because these are the ideals that are placed on public view. When an artist, such as Audrey Flack, engages in this kind of decorative manifestation, there is a voice to be heard, a voice to fill the absence of something vitally missing in our cities today - a clearer view of the feminine principle in the construction of our public life.
I have followed Audrey Flack's work since I was a graduate student in the mid-seventies. She was one of my favorites at the time along with Chuck Close and Alfred Leslie. Actually, Leslie was a Realist, but not a Photo-Realist. He was more traditional in his approach, given to a more naturalist rendering of the figure. But Flack and Close were considered Photo-Realists at the time. Although their approaches were at opposite ends of the spectrum, they seemed to encapsulate the meaning of the representational image. Flack was always about excess; Close was always about the grid - that methodological happenstance where the mark and the unit of structure come together as a form of semiotic disclosure. (This, in fact, was an important lesson I learned from Close.)
Flack's paintings existed on a different level. They could be analyzed from the position of semiotics - that is, the system of signs that reverberate in relation to one another- but were not particularly concerned with structure. Put another way, Flack never had the conceptual rigor of Close, but she had something else: charm, wit, intelligence - and all of these came through in the work. She could construct an image in the most reasoned and articulate manner without ever falling into the trap of illusionistic indulgence. Her paintings had a sense of what was prime subject matter, personalized subjects, that echo from the past into the present, subjects that possessed her almost to the point of some kind of idiosyncratic narrative, like those Netherlandish painters recently shown at the Met. I am particularly given to her affinity with the early Memling or the later Robert Campin. I have always maintained the utmost respect for Flack's work. Sometimes, corny, often effete, I find the work nearly hallucinatory in its indulgences, its hopelessly mesmeric glitz, and utterly miraculous in the way she pulls disparate components together in the most lucid and fastidious manner: a veritable chorus by Handel. Her figurative sculpture of the last decade, currently on view at the Louis Meisel Gallery in SoHo through January 30, may appear mannered, without ever falling prey to mannerism. She is too coy an artist, too markedly sincere, too cognizant of her method, and, by the way, strikingly poignant in her delivery. With all the abundance or ornament that her work possesses she never loses her grip. She is always on top of the situation without repeating herself or without becoming overly stylized. There is a difference between the effect of the earlier paintings (she stopped painting in 1982) and that of her most recent sculpture. The paintings have always contained -possessed - a distinctly Modern look.
The sculpture holds something else. Not quite modern, yet far from belonging to Antiquity, Flack's recent plasters and bronzes suggest a certain timelessness. This quality of time is not so much about meditation, and I would hesitate to claim that they are elegant in the same manner as, let's say, a Brancusi or a Hadzi. Some of her three-dimensional works are, simply put, better than others. While the gaze in AMERICAN ATHENA, 1989 seems incongruous with the pose, it is quite the opposite in CIVITAS, 1988. In CIVITAS, the woman's arms rise from the torso with such splendor and generosity that the gaze seems to reflect the light of the figure's graceful motion. The proportion and verisimilitude are there, and so is the deportment.
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